"Content farms" and the media Precambrian

By Razib Khan | February 26, 2011 1:04 am

I’ve only become aware of “content farms” in any significant way over the past few days. Yes, I’m aware of Associated Content and eHow. I use Google! But I’ve always ignored them. But with Google’s turn against these websites I’ve become curious. This Wired piece from October 2009 is a gem. Here’s the part that caught my attention:

Plenty of other companies — About.com, Mahalo, Answers.com — have tried to corner the market in arcane online advice. But none has gone about it as aggressively, scientifically, and single-mindedly as Demand. Pieces are not dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.

In some ways “mainstream” websites also do this a bit, Nick Denton relies on fine-grained metrics for his Gawker Media properties. But obviously the sort of thing that content farms do, responding so specifically to the interests of the audience, take it to the next level. I started browsing some of the “articles” produced by the contributors, and I think Farhad Manjoo has it right:

Associated Content stands as a cautionary tale for anyone looking to do news by the numbers. It is a wasteland of bad writing, uninformed commentary, and the sort of comically dull recitation of the news you’d get from a second grader. Oh, and here’s one more interesting thing about Associated Content—because its stories are bulging with hot search terms, it gets more visitors than just about every news site online, including washingtonpost.com.

I poked around for pieces on genetics and genomics at Associated Content, and came across stuff like this, What’s the Latest Research in Personalized Nutritional Medicine, Foods, and Genomics?:

The University of California, Davis is outstanding in its continuous assessment of the needs of personalized nutrition, targeting specific gene responses, identified after 10 years of research and development.

Also browse the paperback book, How to Safely Tailor Your Food, Medicines, & Cosmetics to Your Genes: A Consumer’s Guide to Genetic Testing Kits from Ancestry to Nourishment. The Sacramento-Davis area is a research hub in the field of nutrigenomics and nutritional medicine. But you have to know where to look to see what, where, when, why, and how the research is being done and who is leading and/or funding the studies.

Sacramento focuses on the future vision of nutritional genomics identifying research targets and consumer applications. You have various conferences on nutritional genomics, personalized nutritional medicine, and preventive and integrative nutrition as well as metabolic and nutritional dietetics research and developing. Whereas, other universities are funded to develop only drugs, UC Davis studies the health benefits of fruits and vegetables as well as other nutritional-medicine-related topics.

It goes on and on like this for eight pages. As Manjoo said, this is really reminiscent of the style of writing one recalls from elementary school. The better articles on that website in genetics and genomics tend to resemble dumbed-down Wikipedia entries. Considering the brutal “bottom-up” mode of content generation which these media “factories” have pioneered I couldn’t be help but think of stromatolites, the macroscale structures which derive from the collective action of cyanobacteria. They have their own logic, but ultimately conventional multicellular organisms have driven them to marginal niches. I’m not sure that content farms are going to be such a passing fad, but I doubt they’ll be able to persist indefinitely. Their articles are such substandard crap.

Image credit: Paul Harrison

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  • John Emerson

    I have a couple friends who pick up spare cash writing for these. They get a list of words to use in a story and a general topic. From what I understand they make $20+ / hr.; the guy I talked to isn’t a very fluent writer and was making $10+.

    Sort of a metaphor for the culture of capitalism there. It’s just one more of the unsatisfying careers that you have facing you if your skills are mostly verbal (historians and English majors above all). Law, PR, advertising, and now this.

  • John Emerson

    I was going to say, there are no quality or accuracy demands made whatsoever. Probably writers are warned against profanity, actionable statements about real individuals, and a few other things, and I think that normal grammar and spelling are expected. But it’s strictly space filler by the word, fitting text around the wordlist given.

    It seems to me that these farms will last until AI is able to look at an article and see that it’s crap. I don’t think that people reading the articles is one of the goals, just getting them to click the page.

    It’s a little reminiscent of Arriana Huffington, who just cashed out for several hundred million (plus AOL stock, but she wisely took a lot of cash.) Her site is all free content, some linked and some specially written, and the $$$$ is from advertising sales. Most of her authors write for free or not much, because they think of the site as having political value. A lot of them are unhappy with her for cashing out.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    Gresham’s law plus le Châtelier’s Principle validates Sturgeon’s law. The same process and product applied to religion does not devaluate it at all. The dyslexic plural of laughter is slaughter.


  • frost

    Most of her authors write for free or not much, because they think of the site as having political value. A lot of them are unhappy with her for cashing out.

    Kind of a distillation of ‘liberal’ism, eh?

  • John Emerson

    No, that’s a load of bullshit. But I guess it sounds cute to you.

  • Walenty Lisek

    “Most of her authors write for free or not much, because they think of the site as having political value. A lot of them are unhappy with her for cashing out.

    Kind of a distillation of ‘liberal’ism, eh?”

    Don’t forget the part where the articles also have no connection to reality.

  • dave chamberlin

    Content farms remind me of the telemarketing business. Another form of bothersome advertising that was delt with when it got really bad by screening them out. It will be interesting to follow what becomes of content farms and the Huffington Post. It makes me wonder if I can instantly have a blog with lots and lots of hits if I attatch a page of the top one hundred googled porn words. If I did I sure as hell wouldn’t allow comments, nothing seems to draw out the tards like sex,politics, or religion.

  • John Emerson

    The Huffington Post has a wide range of articles, from Hollywood fluff porn to good stuff. I don’t find it worth visiting, but I often end being sent there for the good stuff. Of course, if you want to bitch about liberals, this is your chance.

  • Anthony

    dave chamberlin – Google figured out that one *long* ago. If the words don’t appear in the body of the visible text, they’re not going to count for Google results. What you need to fool Google is harder: lots and lots of pages linking to your page using those words in the link.

    What I don’t get is how answers.com, which 80% of the time is using Wikipedia content, manages to score so high on Google results – it’s changed a little now, but for a while they were often outscoring Wikipedia.

  • rohan

    Google has gotten smarter. But so have the content farms.

    I fear we may have to wait till the singularity: http://xkcd.com/810/

  • Pingback: Low Quality Google Search Results | Sphaerula()


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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